With her rich use of colour and sublime forested landscapes, Emily Carr has become one of Canada’s most iconic and best loved painters, and she grew up right here on Vancouver Island, in Victoria. Immensely talented both as an artist and writer, Carr is noted for her hauntingly beautiful depictions of trees that seem to be melting into each other and for her representation of indigenous cultures. Born December 13th, 1871, Carr is still remembered by some Victoria old-timers, who recall seeing the elderly woman walking her monkey, Woo, along Dallas Road, Woo’s tail appearing comically in bursts as she leapt through the tall grass.
One old time resident remembers mowing Carr’s lawn as a young boy. Reflecting that Carr was often penniless and would sometimes offer to pay him in art, he recalls, with the comical regret of hindsight, that he had scoffed at this trade, preferring money in exchange for his labour. Only years later, as her renown was firmly established and her paintings represented in major art galleries all over the nation, did he realize his youthful folly.
As the eighth of nine children, Carr was born in the year of British Columbia Confederation, and as such she was the first in her family to be born Canadian. This fact mattered a great deal to Carr, who valued her citizenship and the natural world that Canada––and particularly British Columbia––represented. Carr was also fascinated by indigenous cultures, and this fascination is demonstrated in both her paintings and writing.
Most remembered for her painting, Emily Carr was one of the first Canadian artists to attempt to represent the spirit of Canada in a contemporary style. A Post-Impressionist, she was influenced in early days by the Fauvist style, but later her approach changed and evolved as she encountered the Group of Seven. She was also a consummate writer. In 1941 she published her first written work, Klee Wyck, an autobiographical account telling of her time visiting First Nations communities. This book was enormously successful, winning the Governor General’s Gold Medal for literature.
A native of Victoria, Carr is remembered in important city landmarks. Her home at 207 Government Street is open to the public and is a National and Provincial Heritage Site. The house includes period furniture and original paintings, as well as a gift shop selling prints of her art. Complimentary tea is served in the solarium. Her grave, at Ross Bay Cemetery, is often scattered with paintbrushes or pieces of art that have been left for her, and her powerful writing is displayed on her gravestone.
A journal entry from March 9th, 1934, comprises the words that remain on her epitaph:
“Dear mother earth! I think I have always specially belonged to you. I have loved from babyhood to roll upon you, to lie with my face pressed right down onto you in my sorrows. I love the look of you and the smell of you and the feel of you. When I die I should like to be in you unconfined, unshrouded, the petals of flowers against my flesh and you covering me up.”